The Wonderful(ly Frustrating) Complexity of Pokemon

(image by Flickr user: mattjerome_88)

Pokémon is perhaps among the most misunderstood series in the industry today. They’re games we don’t take very seriously for a variety of reasons: it’s obviously aimed at little kids; the “monsters” look silly; the plot is formulaic; the only change with each sequel is the amount of monsters available; and above all else, the gameplay is more or less just rock-paper-scissors with monsters. However, if this was the truth then by all rights the now 16-year-old series should have run its course by now. It hasn’t though; Pokémon is just as popular as it’s always been, with no end in sight. So the question is this: What is it about Pokémon that’s kept it going for so long? And the short answer is: it incredibly complex, even surprisingly so!

I’d been a casual player of Pokémon for about the first 5 of the 16 years it’s been around; starting with the original Red/Blue versions and ending with Ruby/Sapphire (aka Gen. III). For me, all of the reasons above reasons to write the game off were true, and it had gotten boring. I left it behind and didn’t look back for about 10 years; right up until Pokémon X/Y was released. At first glance it still felt like the old games just with some extra battle options, pokémon, and meta-game stuff thrown in…that is until a friend recently dragged me into multiplayer.

What was once a simple game of rock-paper-scissors has gained all the complexity of a game of chess, but with pieces defined by both players! It requires that one not only has pieces to counter their opponent’s, but also trying to read them and anticipate their moves. Suddenly, all the aspects of Pokémon that appeared unnecessary now have purpose, and because the value of a pokémon now depends on the specific needs of the team, all those 700+ pokémon are potent options rather than just being there for the sake of adding to your collection. Each one of those Pokémon is unique though, and as I’ve played I’ve been finding it to be very true that not all of them are good for every team. What I’ve come away with is that the most important question for Pokémon multiplayer isn’t: “Do I have coverage against each type?”, but rather: “How do I want my team to work?” Once that question is answered, the battle begins.

Actually building a team is a challenge unto itself. Each one of the six monsters you choose has to contribute something the other five can’t, in short: they each need a role to play. There are actually terms for the various role a team needs: Sweepers get KOs, Walls stall for time, Clerics improve status and heal, Annoyers inflict status ailments and/or force Pokémon changes, etc. I don’t think all of these are necessary for every team, but it really is incredible just how much goes into purposely building a team. It makes me look back and wonder just how my old teams from the first 3 sets of Pokémon games would hold up today (Probably not very well to put it lightly!).

What actually makes all this complex is that you, the trainer, have control over more than just which Pokémon you catch and use on your team. You can teach them specific moves, breed them for specific moves and stats, give them equipment to improve them even further in one way or another, and most importantly of all: you actually get to train them this time around! Thanks to developments in X/Y, for the first time we as trainers have direct influence over how each Pokémon grows. Will they develop more HP or become more effective in defense? Do I want to develop my Blastoise’s Special Attack stat and make him a strong offensive Pokémon, or do I want to improve his physical defense and make him a great defensive Pokémon? The option is there, it’s entirely up to the trainer. Every aspect of a Pokémon, from their move set to their nature has direct impact on how they should be used and how effective they’ll be, and we’re given control over all of it.

The best and worst of part of all this complexity in the game and the direct control we’re given as Pokémon trainers is that there’s no such thing as a perfect team. That same originality and style you used to build your team and gain so many victories can be the very thing that sees you totally defeated at the hands of the right opponent. There’s always room for new teams, new team members, new strategies, and new ways to approach old problems when it comes to Pokémon. It’s simple on the surface and wonderfully complex under the hood; it’s easy fun for the kids and a battle of wits for the adults. What else is there to say other than it’s Pokémon!

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